The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

Roll up! Roll up!

😀 😀 😀 😀

One day, just as the Omaha World Fair of 1898 draws to a close, two elderly sisters are sitting quietly in their Nebraska farmhouse when an extraordinary event occurs – a hot-air balloon crashes onto their roof. In it is Ferret Skerritt, ventriloquist and magician. He has survived but with a badly broken leg which means that he has to stay in the farmhouse while he recovers – an intrusion the old ladies find a welcome break from their dull routine. They ask him for his story and he is at first reluctant to tell them, instead telling us, the readers. We hear about his early life as an orphan, why he became a ventriloquist, his fascination with the World Fair, his puppet Oscar. And most of all, we learn about his great love for Cecily, an actress also working in the Fair. Finally, we will learn why he was in the hot-air balloon on the day of the crash…

By all rights I should have hated this one. Mostly it’s a romance, with much sighing over Cecily’s many perfections, and it has generous hints of the kind of trendy liberal “woke”-ness that normally makes me run a mile. But the writing is gorgeous and all the stuff about the World Fair is wonderful. I kept expecting to reach a point where the love aspect got too much for me, especially when in the later stages it takes on a kind of ghostly, mystical element, but it kept my attention to the end, and I was well content to gloss over the relative weakness of the plot and its too tidy resolution.

(This is why I love doing challenges. I only read this because of the Omaha setting which is a compulsory stop on my Around the World Challenge. I would never have chosen it based on the blurb or even the mixed reviews.)

I didn’t yet know that this was the actress not listed in the program, that this was that Sessaly, the “violet-eyed trollop” of Opium and Vanities. Her eyes were not violet, after all – they were amber. They were the color of candied ginger or a slice of cinnamon cake. Faded paper, polished leather, a brandied apricot. Orange-peel tea. I considered them, imagining the letters I would write to her. Pipe tobacco, perhaps. A honey lozenge, an autumn leaf. I would look through books of poetry, not to thieve but to avoid. Dear Sessaly, I thought later that night, not actually with pen to paper but lying on my back, writing the words in the air with my finger, let me say nothing to you that’s already been said.

(This is the real event that Schaffert has used as his “World Fair”.)

As well as Cecily and Ferret, there’s a cast of characters who would be eccentric in most lifestyles but who are well and believably drawn as the street entertainers, small-time actors and grifters who haunt the periphery of the Fair. August is Ferret’s best friend – a gay half-caste Indian (using the terminology of the time) who is madly in love with Ferret but knows his love will never be returned. (Yeah. But oddly it works, more or less.) Billy Wakefield is a rich man with a tragic past which somehow fails to make him sympathetic – he’s by no means a stock baddie, but he’s a man who is used to getting his own way regardless of who may get hurt in the process. Cecily works in a company of actors who are performing in the House of Horrors – Cecily herself playing Marie Antoinette being beheaded many times a day for the gruesome delight of the paying customers. And the Nebraskan sisters have their own peculiarities, such as their intention to build a kind of temple on their ground with Ferret as an unlikely prophet.

The characterisation is more whimsical than profound, and Cecily herself is an enigma, to me at least. I found her irritating and not a particularly loveable person, but everyone seems to love her anyway. The story, which looks as if it’s going to be a straightforward romance at first, takes off in an unexpected direction halfway through. I don’t want to include spoilers so I won’t say more on that, except that every time I thought I’d got a handle on where the story was going Schaffert would surprise me – not with shocks and twists, but with an almost fairy-tale like quality of unreality, or illusion.

I can see your absence everywhere, in everything. I could look at a rose, but instead of seeing the rose, I would see you not holding it. I look at the moonlight, and there you are, not in it.

Timothy Schaffert

For me, the Fair itself was the star of the show. Schaffert shows all the surface glamour, and all the hidden tawdriness beneath: the Grand Court where the rich play, the midway for the common herd. He shows the unofficial street entertainers, the whores, the drunks, the sellers of obscene photographs, the many ways to fleece the gullible. But there’s a feeling that the open grifting and true friendships on midway are somehow more honest than the insincerity among the respectable rich, where friendships are superficial and people live for scandal and gossip. Schaffert’s plot runs the full length of the Fair, so that we see it from its dazzling opening with all the buildings white and shining in the sun, to its close, when the veneer is already peeling off, glamour gone, showing the cheap shabbiness beneath and the last fair people left stealing anything they can before they leave.

I’m glad I stepped out of my comfort zone to read this – an odd one, but a surprise winner.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

39 thoughts on “The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert

  1. What an interesting premise, FIctionFan! Hmm….And the setting and context appealed to me, too. Like you, I don’t usually go for romances, but this doesn’t sound like a typical (is there such a thing, anyway?) romance. I always respect an author who can move a story along in different directions without it seeming jarring, too. All in all, it sounds like one of those unusual books that are a bit hard to classify, but that’s their appeal, if that makes sense.

    • This is definitely more literary fiction than straight romance, although the central romance is the main plot. The setting is great – these big exhibitions are a great excuse for bringing together all sorts of odd characters and he made it all feel authentic. Definitely out of my usual comfort zone, but that’s no bad thing… 😀

  2. I guess this is a good example of why we should never judge a book by its blurb. I remember reading it on one of your TBR posts and commenting that it just sounded bizarre. The extracts you have shown however are quite poetic, which in itself would make me want to know more. I’m sort of in the mood for something whimsical and a bit out there, so the tone of this might suit me just now.

    • I’ve had to read a few books that haven’t much appealed to me to fill in spots on the Around the World challenge, and some of them have turned out unexpectedly good. The plot in this one definitely came third for me behind the setting and the language. One of Ferret’s sidelines is to write love letters for the many illiterate people of the time, and I kept finding myself wishing some of my ex-boyfriends had hired him… 😉

  3. I love it when I’m surprised at liking something I thought I wouldn’t! Kudos on your persistence. And how cool that you got your Around the World setting, too — two wins in one!

  4. Hmmm… you certainly have me intrigued, but I’m just not sure. Sometimes beautiful writing works for me, sometimes it doesn’t. Most appealing is your comment that the Fair is the star of the show. Makes me think of The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and the Chicago World’s Fair from that same decade.

    I’m glad stepping out of your comfort zone was a success!! 😃

    • I love beautiful writing so long as the author doesn’t go too far with it. Here there was just about the right amount of poetic stuff for me. Yes! I kept thinking of The Devil in the White City too while I was reading this – I found Larson’s, description of the Chicago World Fair brilliant too. It’s been on my list of Things to Visit When I Get a Time Machine ever since… 😉 Happily, there’s no serial killer in this one, though… 😀

      • Now there’s another list I need to start: places to visit when I have a time machine! (and I’d better find more books like Ian Mortimer’s guide to help me!!)

  5. Haha, yes I agree – it didn’t really sound like your kind of book. But that just shows how difficult it is to predict whether you like a book based on the blurb or even based on other people’s reviews. I’m often taken by surprise by the books I end up loving or disliking. But maybe that’s just me…

    • I tend to be disappointed more often than pleasantly surprised, but that’s because I don’t take a risk often enough – I only read things I expect to love. That’s why I love the challenges – they force me consider books I’d usually ignore, and they often turn out to be much better than I expected. 😀

      • Same here. But shouldn’t you stick to book you expect to love? How do you motivate yourself to read a book, you are not excited about? I don’t have much time to read, so I wouldn’t like to spend my precious reading time experimenting. You are right about missing out on some good reads, but would the ratio of positive surprises to negative surprises go up by experimenting more? I don’t know the answer to that…

        • I’d say I read books I expect to love about 99% of the time. The rest are either ones sent to me unsolicited by publishers (I don’t get many of these, thankfully) or ones that I was tempted to buy by the blurb and then went off later when the reviews came out. Or, like this one, a book to tick a tricky box on a challenge. But when I do love a book unexpectedly, it gives me a boost to try others I’m dubious about – then I usually hate them and quickly drift straight back to my comfort zone… 😉

    • Thanks, Angela! He’s not an author I’d ever heard of before although he seems to have a steady following in the US. But on the basis of this I’d definitely be keen to try some of his other stuff. If you do go for it, I hope it works for you as much as it did for me! 😀

    • Haha – yes, romance only usually works for me if Darcy is involved! I do think you might enjoy this one – the writing is gorgeous. I kept wishing he’d stop writing love letters to “Sessaly” and start writing them to me instead… 😉

  6. I’ve read a couple of historical mysteries set in World Fairs or Exhibitions (sometimes featuring characters who really existed), and invariably these settings become one of the most interesting aspects of the story & inspire me to check out the real events. That’s why I enjoy historical novels – but it has to be said that the inclusion of real people or specific events in fiction can really divide a discussion group into those who think it’s stimulating/enlightening and others who fear history is being misrepresented.

    • I always have mixed feelings myself about real characters being included – I can find it distracts me as I wonder how accurate it is and whether the person would ever really have done/said that. I haven’t come across any fiction set in a world fair or exhibition that I can think of, but I did love Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City – a non-fiction account of the Chicago World Fair of roughly the same period as this one. Again he really brought the place to life – it’s been on my list of Places to Visit When I Get a Time Machine ever since… 😉

  7. Hmm I am a bit shocked that you read this one,but good on you for stepping outside your comfort zone! I’m always hesitant to read ‘romance’ novels myself, but rarely do I dislike them, they are always a welcome reprieve from the ‘too serious’ books I sometimes read 🙂

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